What lies beneath someone who can transform a few blocks of wood into a beautifully crafted musical instrument? We spoke to the violin maker (or luthier) William Szott to find out.
Becoming a luthier is hardly a ‘conveyor belt career’. What made you want to take up the profession?
It was my passion for woodwork that lured me into the workshops at an open day for a nearby college in South London. The smell of wood, the tools hanging on the wall, the atmosphere; I knew then this could be my only opportunity to do what I love for a living, so I enrolled.
Over the next three years I trained in making and repairing violins, violas and cellos.
So did you emerge from your three years at violin-making college as a fully-fledged luthier?
Far from it! Finishing college was merely the first rung on a never-ending ladder of violin-making. I learnt so much in those three years, but it was only when I started work in the UK’s foremost violin dealers in London , J P Guivier, that I realised how little I actually knew.
The complexity of this industry is so vast that no one person will ever know everything – this is what makes the eternal “quest” for knowledge so interesting in this profession.
I worked in London for almost five years and learnt even more, honing my skills and learning the culture that goes with the luthier scene. It’s truly fascinating meeting and talking to people who have acquired the same skill set as you, learning from each other; even people who have been in the trade for over thirty five years can still be taught a thing or two from the young blood.
Can anyone make a violin – and how long does it take?
In theory yes anyone can, however it certainly is not a job for the impatient! My first violin took close to 850 hours to make, basically a whole year at college. Now it takes 150-200 hours plus varnishing.
You have to be someone who is practically minded and good with your hands. You need a real passion, drive and love of the job to be able to make it. Those who don’t tend to go elsewhere or keep it as a hobby as the standard of professional making these days is incredibly high.
You also need to be calm and collected as some jobs take ages. Varnishing an instrument for instance: you can spend a month making up varnish and slowly applying the layers only to not be happy with the final results. The only thing to do then is strip it all off and start all over again. It can be very frustrating but it’s all part of the learning curve.
Albert Einstein once said “the only source of knowledge is experience”, this certainly gets me through some long jobs.
Alright then, what makes your job so difficult?
Apart from having the patience of a monk you have to have a sharp eye. A craftsman has to see things differently, it takes years to train your eye to see the slightest detail, differences and imperfections. Your eye has to take in all the information it can. There are quite a few jobs I won’t even bother to do if the sun has gone down as there isn’t enough natural light, you just have to have the optimum amount of light to see correctly.
Dexterity is also a useful skill, most of my making is done to within 0.1mm; the average thickness of a layer of paint or a human hair. It’s very important not to slip with the chisel at a crucial stage and you have to be able to read the characteristic of the wood, to know which way it cuts best so it doesn’t chip out or split.
So what makes a good violin?
There are many different aspects to that question and everyone has their own views to the answer, but for m,e it’s the character of the maker. Not necessarily the accuracy they work to or the precision of the copy they are making, but being able to see the flair in the craftsman’s work, the skill and style they possess. It fascinates me how an instrument can be identified even though the maker has died hundreds of years ago and the violin has aged, it still has its original character, something no-one else can truly copy.
It’s a signature in wood, something that represents who you are. The speed at which you work, the tools you use, the skill of your hand, the sharpness of your eye, all of these create an infinite amount of ways to display your style.
I’d like to think if one of my violins was among twenty other modern violins all of the same model that my colleagues would know me and my style well enough to pick mine out. This to me really shows what makes an instrument so personal and great!
So you’ve told us a bit about your past. What about the future, where do you see yourself in the music and violin industry?
I’ve only been in Manchester for less than a year now so it is still early days, but I’m working on making more violins this year. My primary skill is restoration but I do love the idea that someone gets so much happiness from something that I have created and that this creation will live on longer than I will. So I hope to make a name for myself by doing this.
As most of my work comes from word of mouth, the client numbers are slowly increasing. I really like talking with my customers and finding out what they want and like in instruments, as well as making for good business it also makes the job a lot more fun. I particularly like working with students as they are brimming with enthusiasm and always inquisitive to the mystical art of lutherie.